The Bili Coffee Buying Project:
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History Of The Area And The Project.
The Tervuren Museum in Belgium displays some 4 gorilla skulls from the Bondo area which arrived in Belgium in 1898.
In 1996 Karl Ammann conducted the first research trip to the Bondo/Bili region to establish if this gorilla population still exists - (it looks like it has gone extinct).
Subsequent survey trips revealed a very serious pattern of commercial elephant poaching mostly for meat and mostly for export to the Central African Republic. (CAR)
A book written by the German explorer Adolf Friedrich Herzog zu Mecklenburg in the 1930's talks about a Belgian elephant training camp near Api (close to Bili) and the fact that the Begiums set up this base because the Bili Uere area had the highest density of elephants in the DRC.
Due to its prolific wildlife population the colonial authorities declared the whole region, south of the Bomou River, as a protected area extending from the Sudan/CAR/DRC border almost up to Yakoma and to Bili in the South, making this the second biggest hunting/wildlife reserve in the DRC.
In 2000 Karl Ammann asked a prominent elephant hunter why the local villagers continued to wipe out what had become of a very small fraction of the elephant population that once existed. The answer was: "Nobody is coming any more to buy our coffee and we have no other income." Question: "Would you stop elephant poaching if you could again sell your coffee?" Answer: "Yes it is much easier to cultivate coffee than finding any of the remaining elephants".
That is how the coffee project idea was borne and in 2001 Karl Ammann and Hans Wasmoeth of the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation (TWWF) signed an agreement with the local chiefs and the MLC in Gbadolite. We agreed to buy all the coffee produced in the two collectivities covering the area between Bili and the CAR border at three to four times the existing market price (U$ 0.50 per kg).
The actual buying of coffee started in February 2002. Some 180 tons of raw coffee were bought in the two collectivities Boso and Gbiamange and an amount of US Dollars $ 130.000,00 was injected in the economy of these two collectivities.
(We fixed, with a wide range of spare parts, the three existing cars in the area and paid the chiefs a petrol allowance to go and repair the roads and bridges. Besides the ape research team we employed some 40 local people to assist with the coffee buying. We paid taxes on the motorbikes and cars, the HF radios and in conjunction with The Norwegian Baptist Union, we expanded the airstrip to take DC3 and Caravan aircrafts.
We offered space to the missionaries on our flights and brought in hundreds of kilos of medicines and spare parts for the Norwegian Baptist Mission in Bili and the Combione Brothers at Bambillo.
Apart from the plantation owners, we offered to buy all the coffee from the people who did not have their own plantation and harvested wild coffee beans in the forest. We ensured that the coffee pickers employed by the bigger plantation owners would get fair salaries, in line with the higher coffee prices we were paying.
We bought some 180 tons of raw coffee. We paid for another team of some 15 people to hull the beans during the last rainy season. We also flew in the jute sacks to store the coffee properly. We now have 88 tons of cleaned coffee beans stored at Bili.
TWWF will have invested almost US $ 500.000,00 in the area by the end of this coffee buying season ( July 2004).
The ultimate objective is to give this - what will be called Mbala! Elephant friendly coffee - to supermarket chains in Europe for free with the clear message that coffee buyer contributes to the conservation of habitats and species for the benefit of all local people, rather than commercial bush meat profits for just a few individuals.
The feedback from the local population so far has been very encouraging. People use the income to pay for much needed medical treatment, to pay for school fees and to buy bicycles etc.
Potential To Expand The Project
The DRC is home to a range of endemic species and habitats which the world's conservation community feels strongly about.
It is clear that today's wildlife and habitat conservation is only possible if the people in and around the protected areas can be motivated to accept the need for such protection.
Experience has shown that outside protected areas, where there is no special legal basis to safeguard wildlife and habitat, there appears to be little hope to turn the wheel back in as far as bush meat hunting and bush meat consumption is concerned.
The Bili coffee buying program is a community based conservation project which is geared to the specific circumstances and needs of the DRC. The project benefits from several years of experience in working with the local population.
Through the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation, the project is independently sponsored and TWWF is prepared to guarantee the long term financing and expansion of the project. In addition, the World Bank, through The Global Environmental Facility, and several of the larger conservation organizations have expressed interest in the Bili/Uere area. Additional resources seem to be available, if a formula can be found to spend funds effectively.
The Bili project should be considered and evaluated as a pilot project, that could be adopted in other parts of the DRC. There is certainly a potential to expand the project throughout the three protected areas alongside the CAR border.
The project and the chimpanzee research have already been featured in a special half an hour CNN documentary as well as a BBC Earth Report on BBC World. There is a considerable potential and interest for additional positive media attention that will also benefit the image of the DRC.
Typical Difficulties That Were Encountered During The Last Two Years
First we should point out that the area is of special conservation interest for a variety of reasons which have become rare in the context of protecting wildlife on the African continent:
a very low human density with an overall population which has been declining for several decades,
most of the hunting is still subsistence hunting. However with pretty much all wildlife having been hunted out in the CAR and the elephant population, on the DRC side of the border, being down to a few animals, there is no doubt that in future commercial hunting will affect a much wider range of species - including the chimpanzees.
the local population is not yet using cable snares which are very wasteful.
This was the basis for our decision that the Bili/Uere area was ideal for such a community conservation project. However, there are now serious doubts as to whether this assessment is still valid.
Elephant Poaching Continues
In the early stages of the project, the MLC had some 20 soldiers stationed at Bili. On two occasions the administration agreed to relocate some of these soldiers to the border area to counteract poaching incursions from the neighboring CAR. On one occasion some five poachers were arrested together with their army weaponry, the ivory of several elephants and the meat.
While being transported to Gbadolite for trial, they escaped and were back into poaching elephants in the Adama area a few months later. We again asked for the soldiers to be sent to the area and this time we helped in providing all the food for these soldiers.
In the end several of these poachers were arrested and while some of the poachers incurred injuries, we paid for their medical treatment. By interviewing some of the arrested poachers and other parties the following facts became clear.
- Most of the poachers are well known individuals with "noms de guerre".
- Many are ex Mobutu soldiers have been living in CAR border villages of Dembia, Gadia, Zemio, Rafai and Ginekumba for the last 5 years.
- For elephant hunting they use army weaponry (most hidden in villages on the DRC side of the border).
- Most of the ammunition for the weaponry is provided by the CAR army under "a trade agreement" of meat for bullets.
- One middle man (well known) is a major player in getting weapons and ammunition from the army to the poachers.
- There is a well known trader and his wife who regularly transport tons of elephant meat - in his four wheel drive Mercedes truck - from this border area to Bangui.
A CAR government official held a meeting with the DRC exiles in October 2003 along the border and told them, that since all the elephant meat was finished on the CAR side, they were free to hunt in the DRC and to take the meat back into the CAR.
The CAR authorities have imposed three different taxes on bush meat coming from the DRC into the country, despite the fact that the country is a signatory to the CITES convention, making any such transaction illegal.
These poachers/criminals used local villagers to transport the elephant meat in the past. When some villagers resisted, the poachers attacked whole villages (Adama for instance), staked people to the ground and beat them up and looted all their belongings.
This is already a well known pattern in the CAR where commercial poachers have turned into criminals once all the wildlife was gone. There are now whole areas where villages have been abandoned due to these continuing threats by these criminals.
In the last few months, the remaining elephant population has fled into the Sasa area (having fled from Fulani cattle herders and their beasts). Heavy elephant poaching has been and continues to happen in and around Monzengo in the Sasa collectivity during the last few months.
Our agent in the CAR has been reporting the arrival of new loads of fresh elephant meat and ivory at regular intervals since early December 2003. Clearly, the traditional chief of Sasa has not been able to cope with these criminal/ poaching threats and subsequently we have informed him that we will not buy any coffee in his area since it would send the wrong message: "It is okay to have poaching going on, while you sell us your coffee."
This hunting in one of the DRC's officially protected area contravenes a very wide range of national laws and it also infringes on the CITES treaty to which both the DRC and CAR are signatories.
As such this type of commercial poaching is not only about protecting wildlife, but is potentially a National Security issue at the same time.
Tax Regime In The Project Area
It would seem that tax collection in the DRC was decentralized some years ago. This decentralization appears to go beyond different regions and many (semi) officials do not only determine the type of taxes but also the level of taxation. (We have seen taxes for buying souvenirs, for animal watching, for parking aircrafts and taxes for having still cameras and video cameras, for satellite phones etc. etc.)
When in Bili, we seem to be spending most of our time explaining the terms and conditions of the "Convention" we signed with the authorities and which we understand is to be ratified under the Sun City Accord.
The local administration and the district administration have on various occasions tried to levy a tax on the buying of coffee (essentially VAT), while the chiefs have collected an income tax from the sellers of the coffee. We have also been asked for taxes for processing the coffee (usinage) and on another occasion, a tax for transporting the coffee.
Recently, we were advised that the Deputy Governor for Bas Uele has stated that he does not recognize our "Convention" and that time has come to pay taxes to Buta (besides all the local taxes we have resisted so far).
He supposedly informed the local Immigration and Security Inspector in Bili, that he did not care what agreement we had and that he did not care if the project closed down and the people of Bili lost a large percentage of their income.
One typical example is the airstrip in Bili which we initiated and together with Mme Liv of the Norwegian Baptist Mission built and maintain at great cost. At various times attempts have been made to charge us a landing fee of up to US $ 1000.00. On one occasion we were presented with an aircraft parking fee of U$1.50 a minute. We are told that the above official has now dispatched an agent to collect U$ 200 per landing in the future.
Needless to say that this mentality of having to pay to be allowed to help is pervasive and counter productive as far as humanitarian projects and development is concerned.
Present State Of Affairs
In December 2003 Hans Wamoeth and Karl Ammann flew to Bili to start the discuss the new coffee buying season and to sign up the neighboring Collectivity of Sasa, which would have doubled the area of operation to 45.000 square kilometers.
On 30th January 2004, a DC3 flew into Bili with additional communication equipment, motorbikes, spare parts and three expatriates to assist with the ape research and to manage the coffee buying program.
The Invasion Of Fulani (Mbororo) Cattle People
While flying to and from Bili during the last few years, we have noticed with alarm the influx of more and more cattle along the CAR border in the protected areas. It seems that most of these cattle people come from Western Sudan and Tchad.
While they would only spend a limited time in the DRC in the past, it is now apparent that they stay throughout the year and more a more of these cattle people are arriving. In terms of wildlife protection, this is a disaster. As we have already seen, the remaining elephants have to flee and they walk right into the arms of the poachers awaiting them.
Again, knowing of the conflict scenarios linked to invading pastoralists (Hutu-Tutsi and Hema-Lendu), this (illegal) development could very well become a National Security issue. It certainly affects our assessment of this area as a potentially protected area, offering the basis for a conservation initiative.
Requirements To Ensure The Success And Continuity Of The Project
It is clear, that the immediate dispatch of a contingent of soldiers to the border area to control the movements of heavily armed poachers and the Sudanese camel caravans, that will arrive toward the end of the dry season to participate in the elephant poaching, is urgently required.
We have allocated special funds to pay for the salaries of such a contingent, so they can buy their own food and do not become a burden to the local villagers.
We have offered to bring in a former army commander we have worked with in the past and who we feel would be able to control and effectively deploy such a platoon. Furthermore we have offered to bring in an international expert or experts to employ qualified army personnel and to train them to become an effective anti poaching unit.
A formal letter to the regional and local administration confirming our tax exempt status under the terms and conditions of the existing agreement on the coffee buying and research programs, should be forthcoming. (Of course, we will continue to pay the fees for visas, the radio, and the motorbikes).
Furthermore, a letter is required confirming that a private airstrip constructed with private funds and maintained with private funding will not be subject to any landing/take off or parking fees.
It would be extremely helpful, if the DRC Government could set up an institutional infrastructure to deal with known poachers/ criminals, together with an extradition request to the CAR authorities.
Consequently a procedure to get them to a court in Buta and for a judge to arbitrate the case, based on available evidence, and handing out sentences which are considered a real deterrent, should be implemented. (we plan to prepare full dossiers on some of the well known individuals involved).
We would be grateful if the Minister of Foreign Affairs could give us an introduction to the authorities in the CAR, enabling us to gauge the political will on that side of the border and to ask for effective law enforcement in some of the main trouble spots.
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